The 4 Corners Festival hosted a discussion last night about why churches have not done enough to promote peacebuilding and reconciliation since the Belfast Agreement – and what Christians can do to change that.
During the question and answer part of the evening, Alan McBride, whose wife was killed in the Shankill bomb, asked a question about forgiveness. Rev Karen Sutheraman, pastor of the Down Community, responded in this way:
‘On behalf of churches, let me say sorry for the times we said to victims, “you must forgive.”’
Churches have come in for criticism for pressurising people to forgive or, worse, to ‘forgive and forget.’ Sutheraman’s apology reminded listeners that the churches have not always handled forgiveness well. And if churches are to engage constructively in the public sphere, a measure of humility about their past mistakes can go a long way.
The panelists for the ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’ event were Sutheraman, whose Down Community is influenced by the Celts and Anabaptists and promotes the values of love, grace, acceptance, hospitality, influence, creativity and risk; Fr Brian Lennon, a Jesuit priest and a founder of Community Dialogue; Rev Dr Heather Morris, former President of the Methodist Church in Ireland and currently secretary of home missions; and Rev Steve Stockman, minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church and a founder of the 4 Corners Festival. (Disclaimer: I chaired the event, and I am on the committee of the 4 Corners Festival.)
Lennon, who has written a book on forgiving (he emphasised that it is about forgiving, not forgiveness), said that for some people it is helpful to reframe the question from ‘Can you forgive?’ to ‘Would you like to be free?’ But he also admitted this does not work for everyone, and affirmed a comment from McBride: that forgiveness is not absolutely necessary for society to move forward. (McBride and Stephen Travers, who was injured in the Miami Showband attack, will discuss ‘Life after Death: Living Today with a Legacy of the Troubles,’ in another Festival event on Thurs 8 February at 7.30 pm, St John’s Parish Hall, 444 Falls Road).
So rather than getting hung up on forgiveness – especially if forgiveness depends on someone else repenting for their sins – church leaders at national and grassroots levels might contribute to current debates by starting different conversations. Conversations that ask us to consider what our society would look like if we acknowledged each other’s suffering and how we have contributed to it; and encountered each other with mercy, compassion, empathy, and grace.
Or, Christians could start more sensitive conversations about forgiveness – something the Festival aims to do in its final event, ‘Forgiveness Remembers,’ Sunday 11 Feb at 7 pm at Knock Methodist.
This event was inspired by Rev Harold Good’s suggestion that Northern Ireland should have a day of acknowledgement to reflect on the Troubles. It is focused around conversation with Paul Farren and Robert Miller about their book, Forgiveness Remembers, chaired by Rev Cheryl Meban, and will conclude with an act of acknowledgement and a commitment to reconciliation.
During the Troubles, the churches’ most significant contributions to peacemaking came from courageous individuals like Fr Alec Reid, Fr Gerry Reynolds, Rev John Dunlop, Rev Ken Newell, Rev Roy Magee, Rev Lesley Carroll, Sr Geraldine Smith, and groups like Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), among others. The contributions of the institutional churches, by and large, were limited.
Church leaders made statements together; and some denominations initiated peacebuilding projects – like the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel or the Presbyterian Church’s Peacemaking programme. But my research (and that of others) shows that these statements didn’t really reach the people in the pews, let alone those outside them; and the peacemaking programmes weren’t taken up enthusiastically across the denominations.
This pattern continues in the present. There are individuals and small groups carrying forward the work of the courageous individuals of the past. The institutional churches continue to struggle. Even the Irish Churches Peace Project (2013-2015) – which involved the four largest denominations and some smaller churches – seemed to function by putting peacebuilding activities in a box for some people to do, rather than impressing upon Christians that reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility.
Lennon cited the Presbyterian Church’s ‘Vision for Society’ statement, which was approved at its 2016 General Assembly, as a good example of a church prioritising peacebuilding. The statement is admirable: it includes confession for ‘our failure to live as Biblically faithful Christian peacebuilders …’ and affirms that ‘ Christian peacebuilding [is] … part of Christian discipleship.’ Yet I am willing to wager that Lennon, a Catholic priest, is more aware of this statement than thousands of Presbyterians across Northern Ireland. Even when institutional churches make statements like this, they are often received with opposition and apathy — if anyone notices them at all.
Morris spoke about how a vocation for peacebuilding should be central to Christians’ identity in a divided society like Northern Ireland, rather than a fringe activity. As an example, she mentioned the well.com, a Christian centre for psychological and spiritual well-being, a group for which ‘reconciliation is fundamental to who they are.’
Clearly a huge challenge for the churches remains making peacebuilding and reconciliation fundamental to who they are. Illustrating the difficulty of this task, some panellists shared how their commitments to peacebuilding had taken years to develop. Stockman recalled how, as a young, naïve 18-year-old Christian, he had written a letter to the Ballymena Guardian about how Christianity should be about loving your enemy – and in his context, that was Catholics. He was rebuffed by friends and family; and also by counter-letters in that particular local press. He said it took him 30 more years before he had enough courage and conviction to become an active peacebuilder.
Sutheraman described how her upbringing in East Belfast meant she had to undergo a process of ‘re-learning’ about her faith, which was sparked by a spiritual mentor from England advising her to read about St Brigid. Brigid, of course, is a Celtic saint whose popularity, it must be assumed, is minimal in East Belfast. But Sutheraman was inspired by St Brigid’s peaceful example.
Sutheraman also said that her theological and pastoral training did not prepare her for ministering in a divided society. This is a problem that also has been recognised by the 4 Corners Festival, which organised an invitation-only event that was designed encourage seminarians and young clergy to think about this issue.
‘Talking it Over,’ held last week, was a lunchtime discussion where seminarians, young clergy, and Theology and Conflict Transformation students from Queen’s talked about what they had heard at an event in the festival the next before, ‘A Conflict Frozen in time?’, about political loyalism. It emerged in that conversation that some seminarians feared that many of the congregations in which they could be placed would not support them in peacebuilding and reconciliation work.
But 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, the institutional churches are not the only institutions to have fallen short in promoting peacebuilding and reconciliation. To paraphrase Morris, the challenge remains for all citizens to find creative ways ‘to make reconciliation fundamental to who we are.’